One of the delights of engaging with cocktails is that it allows you to understand your own palate and adjust your drinks accordingly.
Most of the truly great painters with iconic styles---consider Renoir or Picasso---first had to develop their skills copying, imitating and emulating the great classic artists that came before them. Only when they had achieved an understanding of the classic artists could they begin to build their own entirely individual style.
With cocktails, the same thing can happen. Understand the basics, experience and enjoy the classics, and you can free yourself to have the confidence to spin off your own variations of those classics that suit you perfectly.
Case in point: Nathan Gerdes, one of the most accomplished and lauded of bartenders working today, stopped by for a friendly chat and a cocktail at The Teardrop Lounge and thought for a moment on what he wished to drink.
The Teardrop certainly has no shortage of inspired and artistic cocktails. It is the mecca of cocktail sophistication in Portland, a time-honored place that keeps its bar service on the cutting edge of mixology with a finely balanced selection of the classics mingled with the new and innovative creations of imaginative professionals. Gerdes could have easily selected from that wide range of possibilities and been satisfied.
But he was in the mood for an old favorite, a classic cocktail with a slight twist, not of citrus, but of focus, and asked for a “Negroni with a Caz Repo.”
What Gerdes was asking for, and what the bartender delivered up without a blink, was a classic Negroni that substituted Cazadores Reposado Tequila for the usual gin, mixed with sweet red vermouth and Campari bitter liqueur.
With the softer, fruitier and more floral highlands tequila in lieu of gin, the drink took on a gentler tone and expressed an entirely different, smoother herbal/floral note of agave. The Reposado, aged for a brief period of months in American oak barrels, further softened the texture and rounded out the flavors with faint hints of sweet vanilla and just the faintest, faintest touch of gingery spice hovering at the edge of perception.
With the added complexities of sweet vermouth, and the bitter orange Campari lending a tingly, edgy, side-of-the-tongue bite, the cocktail came together in lovely balance, all the elements there, but none dominating.
Go over to Nostrana and you’ll find Douglas Derrick putting forth a new version of a Negroni each month. That special of the month may hew rigorously close to the classic style by changing only the gin or vermouth component…or it may veer wildly away by substituting other classes of spirits or even previously unconsidered exotic components. In either case, Derrick always seeks to explore and push the boundaries of the idea of the cocktail.
Try it for yourself. Ask your bartender for one of those classic cocktails, but with an original twist. Order a Negroni with tequila instead of gin. Or a Manhattan using dark aged rum in lieu of whiskey. How about a Daiquiri with a fruit eau-de-vie? You know what your comfort zone is: now step out of it and craft your own original taste.